In economics, there is a financial principle called Gresham’s law. Simply stated, the law asserts that “bad money drives out good money.” A familiar example is when currency consisting of precious metal coins becomes more valuable than paper money and there are no legal tender laws. Under this circumstance, the metal coins will be hoarded and disappear from circulation while the paper currency dominates.
A similar idea applies to contentious issues; that is, “bad issues drive out good issues.” In public discourse about contentious issues, people tend to embrace overly simplified interpretations of disagreements and overlook or ignore more complex, but equally important views. People who follow politics are familiar with this phenomenon.
This principle applies to debates concerning the SUNY Oneonta plan for dealing with the COVID-19 virus in the spring 2021 semester.
Cases of COVID-19 are on the rise nationally, across New York state, and in the Oneonta community. Recently, the administration of SUNY Oneonta has embraced a plan that allows about 1,000 students to live on campus and offer 20% of its courses in a face-to-face modality. This plan faces opposition from some college employees, Oneonta residents, students, parents of students and alumni.
Arguments supporting each side are diverse and complex. The controversy involves competing values (individual rights vs. good of the community) as well as differences in how these values should be applied (e.g., Whose rights should take precedence?).
The value that has risen to the top of the debate is the safety and well-being of individuals, placing public focus on risk.
Risk is a complicated idea with ethical implications, but it is often used in oversimplified ways in debates. Risk is a situation or action that poses danger — usually in the form of injury or death. The debate over reopening the SUNY Oneonta campus focuses on “objective risk,” or the probability of a bad outcome.
So far, in the United States, there have been 11.8 million cases (3% of the population) and more than 250,000 recorded deaths (less than 0.1% of the population). Some people interpret these data to mean the risks are very low.
The actual risk, however, is difficult to estimate because of the factors involved, include, but are not limited to place of residence, age, physical health and occupation. These factors are overlooked by advocates of the reopening plan who assert that the plan is safe because the chances of catching the disease and suffering ill effects seem minimal.
There are two problems with the assertion that students should be allowed to return to campus-based on safety alone. The first is a logical problem; that is, making conclusions based on previous and incomplete data. The plan is based on events of the past year, yet each day we discover new aspects of the COVID-19 virus and the illness it causes. The second problem: the “safety” argument is unethical.
To the first point, conditions are rapidly changing. Only 49% of Americans obey social distancing and mask-wearing policies and many are becoming lax in their preventive behaviors due to pandemic fatigue. Currently, more Americans are hospitalized with COVID-19 than at any other time in the history of the pandemic. Cases are rising in the region and many appear to be random in the sense that they haven’t been traced to any point of origin. No one knows the risk of having students return to campus following holiday gatherings, during a second spike in the pandemic, and possibly amidst a local spread of the illness.
To the second point, a common mistake in debating issues is equating “what is” with “what should be done.” The fact that a risk is very low does not necessarily mean we should embrace actions that encourage people to take that risk.
A simple analogy illustrates this idea. Suppose I want to practice target shooting on Main Street at 7 a.m. on a Sunday. Is there a problem with setting up a target in front of City Hall and shooting at it with my rifle? I could argue that my risk of hurting someone is very low because I am a responsible person and a skilled marksman. I have taken precautions to minimize the risk of damaging property or people. But reasonable people would judge my actions to be morally wrong, as well as illegal. My actions would be morally wrong because even though the risk associated with my behavior is small, the severity of possible outcomes is great. My actions could kill or badly injure someone. From an ethical perspective, it is wrong to impose any risk on another person without their permission, especially if the risks are life-threatening and preventable.
One of the key moral principles in society is that individuals who might suffer from an action should be allowed to decide for themselves whether to engage in that action.
The risks associated with contracting COVID-19 are severe, including prolonged illness, hospitalization, isolation and death. These risks are amplified for the elderly, the poor, and the chronically ill.
This raises another aspect of risk; that is, “subjective risk.” The risks associated with the pandemic are not the same for everyone. A young, healthy individual might say that the risks are low and worth taking, whereas the person with an autoimmune disease or an individual who cares for elderly or chronically ill family members might view these risks as unacceptable.
There are countless reasons why one person might assess risk differently than another and all should be respected. Those who lost loved ones to COVID-19 will not be comforted by the fact that the chances of dying from the disease are low. Nor would they accept the claim that the deaths of these people were sacrifices necessary for restarting the economy or returning society to normal.
How do these principles relate to the proposed reopening of SUNY Oneonta? Inviting students to Oneonta places extra burden on people who do not have the choice of avoiding these risks. These include essential workers at the college, local medical facilities and essential businesses as well as citizens who risk exposure simply by going about their daily routines.
No one knows what will happen next semester. One thing that we do know: The ends do not always justify the means. Imposing risk on faculty, staff, students and other community members is the wrong thing to do. None of us have forgotten the crisis our community faced only three short months ago.
Any plan to reopen any local campus is wrong, plain and simple.
Keith K. Schillo is a professor of biology at SUNY Oneonta and an emeritus professor at University of Kentucky.